Day 879: When One’s Writing Cup Overfloweth

originally published May 28, 2014

Were it not for the six or so hours of procrastination that has siphoned away my productivity today, I might have ascribed a new disorder to myself, in that special way that we net-snooping nutjobs are prone to do. Anyone who has ever tried to diagnose themselves using WebMD or some other resource, only to find that their sore throat and unusually stiff elbow means they’re probably going to die within the next 20 minutes knows that this is not a wise choice.

Today my mysterious ailment is something called hypergraphia. The main symptom of this malady is an intense desire to write. Hey! That’s me! Well, except for today… never underestimate the power of distraction to cure what ails you.

No, hypergraphia is a more powerful compulsion to put pen to paper than this project could ever be blamed for. It’s not necessarily a desire for expression, or for achieving a finished product, but more of an irresistible drive to write. This symptom can appear alongside epilepsy, and it’s a big red flag for a personality disorder known as Geschwind Syndrome. If your non-stop writing only produces an endless string of erotic haikus, it might be a big red flag for something else.

Some sufferers of hypergraphia (hypergraphics?) compose poetry, or vast creative works with some genuine literary merit. This is not a disorder that presupposes that the end result will be pages of scrawled gibberish; someone with a legitimate creative pitch to their mental whistle can produce some high-end text. It has been suggested that Fyodor Dostoevsky, Vincent van Gogh, Lewis Carroll and even Robert Burns were subject to this inescapable urge.

Some keep diaries. Not your average thoughts-n-feelings book, but a veritable record of their meals, their social encounters, their dreams and their waking musings. Others maintain lists – of relatives, likes and dislikes, turn-ons and turn-offs, optimum rankings for fantasy football, and so on. Sometimes the end result is a single word or sentence, repeated until the page is full. Sometimes the page ends up looking like this:

Writing in an outward spiral from the center of the page is not uncommon among sufferers of hypergraphia. Not that you should be alarmed if you’ve done this – it might also be a symptom of being numb-ass bored in physics class. But if you make a habit of it, this might be something to look into.

One patient studied in the initial efforts to define this syndrome had a habit of thinking in rhyme, non-stop. The guy didn’t read poetry and he didn’t speak in rhyme, he simply thought in couplet form, then had to write it down. Another had the need to write things backwards, so that they could only be read in a mirror.

Proper grammar might appear in these ramblings, but more often than not the sentences are poorly constructed, meaningless and meandering. It’s the insatiable need to get the words out that matters, not the polish.

While it has been suggested that schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and hypomania might be linked to hypergraphia, it is most commonly associated with temporal lobe epilepsy. Less than ten percent of the folks burdened with this form of epilepsy actually see it manifest itself through the need to write, but there are enough cases to confirm a link.

The drug Donepezil, which is used in the palliative treatment of Alzheimer’s disease, has been known to trigger the rare case of hypergraphia. Another very rare symptom from this drug is the compulsion to sing. I suspect that’s not nearly as fun as it sounds.

The true cerebral culprit behind hypergraphia is still a mystery. We know that temporal lobe epilepsy is usually found in the left hemisphere of the brain, but brain damage from strokes or tumors on the right side can also trigger the behavior. It might be the hippocampus, which controls our memory circuits. In short, we just don’t know for sure.

Hypergraphia has popped up in the news in strange ways. In 1997, the condition helped to absolve a man from murder charges. Alvin Ridley was accused of having imprisoned Virginia, his wife, for almost 30 years before suffocating her to death in their home just outside of Ringgold, Georgia. He insisted they were a happy couple, that he would never have dreamed of doing such a thing. The key piece of evidence that supported his claim of innocence was her hypergraphia.

Alvin produced Virginia’s diary. 10,000 pages of compulsively-penned details that depicted not only her happy marriage, but also her agoraphobia and her epilepsy. She became a hermit as a result of her parents’ strong disapproval of her marriage, and proceeded to write extensively for the last three decades of her life. Alvin’s attorney submitted Virginia’s autopsy as well as the autopsy report for Olympian Florence Griffith-Joyner, who had died from an epileptic seizure, demonstrating the similarities between the two. The prosecution didn’t let up on their accusations, but the jury found enough of a reasonable doubt to allow Alvin to walk.

Robert Shields, a former minister and high school English teacher, one-upped every one of us poor schmucks engaged in a voluminous writing project. He kept a diary of every five-minute chunk of his life, from sleeping to shaving to his regular bathroom deposits of waste material. Robert spent at least four hours of every day on his back porch in Dayton, Washington, jotting down his medication intake, his blood pressure, temperature, and the nitty-gritty-shitty details of his urinary and bowel activity. He usually kept his sleeps down to two-hour increments so that he could awaken and record his dreams.

Clearly Mr. Shields’s hypergraphia was the result of some sort of brain malfunction, but he took a philosophical view. “Maybe by looking into someone’s life at that depth, every minute of every day, they will find out something about all people.” That’s an interesting take on it – can we find some truth about humanity’s journey within the nuances of Robert’s most mundane tasks? The excerpt posted above shows that Robert went slightly beyond the trivial, peppering his record with some interesting language choices. It might not be a dull read, if there wasn’t so damn much of it.

From 1972 until a stroke cut short his ability to continue in 1997 – 25 years of everything. The collection is made up of more than 37.5 million words, and fits snugly into 94 cartons, which Robert donated to Washington State University in 1999. The full breadth of the diary – under the terms of Robert’s donation – cannot be counted or fully read until 50 years after his death, so in October of 2057. He also donated some of his nose hair for future study. I’m… I’m really not sure why.

So maybe my extensive writing is less hypergraphia and more pure masochism. Or maybe I just don’t have nearly as much to say.

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